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September 5, 2019

Local family’s products getting national attention

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Bob and Mollie Thorsen check out the display of their new product, the Burro Buddy, at Rankins Hardware in Warrenton.
Contributed Photo
Congressman Denver Riggleman (left) stops by the Little Burros display during the Made in America Product Showcase at the White House on July 15.
So, I got this idea, like a light bulb went off in my head.
— Bob Thorsen, Little Burro inventor
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Thousands of gardeners across the nation have purchased the wheelbarrow organizer that started with a prototype made of cardboard and duct tape in a Warrenton garage.

The Little Burros founders recently appeared on Fox & Friends and took part in showcase of made-in-the-US products at the White House. Their molded plastic caddies — the original Little Burro and the newer, smaller Burro Buddy — have won National Hardware Show awards, along with recommendations from home improvement guru Bob Vila.

The inventor, Bob Thorsen credits his wife Sudie for the inspiration. Mr. Thorsen recalls a day of yard work in 2013 at their home west of Warrenton.

“She’d take her ice tea, water, house phone, cell phone . . . . They’d be scattered all over the place. ‘Where’d I leave this? Where’d I leave that?’ ”

After filling 12 bags with leaves, Mrs. Thorsen asked: “Where’s my cell phone?”

They eventually found it, but the veteran homebuilder decided to help his wife get better organized for chores.

“So, I got this idea, like a light bulb went off in my head,” Mr. Thorsen said.

He fashioned a cardboard tray — with compartments to hold a range of items — that would sit atop a wheelbarrow.

Wondering if his crude prototype had potential, he decided to run it by their five adult children. With their encouragement, Mr. Thorsen took it to an Alexandria architect, who produced the first drawing.

Then, an attorney helped him get a patent. But, the idea remained far from a consumer product that one could buy at the neighborhood hardware store.

Boltgroup — an industrial design, engineering and testing firm in Charlotte — began work on a real prototype, a task that took a couple of 3-D printers.

Wanting a name that conveyed humble service, Mr. Thorsen and his family came up with “Little Burro.” The pack animal in the logo has a slightly droopy ear and appears before a mountain range in New Mexico, Mr. Thorsen’s place of birth. The family rooted for the Seattle Seahawks, the 2014 Super Bowl winners, and adopted their colors: Oxford blue and bright Kelly green for the product.

Without a finished prototype, the Thorsens reserved a booth at the National Hardware Show that May in Las Vegas.

The Boltgroup shipped the prototype and display booth to Vegas, where the Thorsens handled their product for the first time.

“Everything was perfect, and it won best new product,” said Mr. Thorsen, 65. “We were totally shocked.”

The votes of show attendees, primarily store owners, resulted in the “Retailers Choice Award.” Then, Madison County-based Plow & Hearth, a home and garden retailer, put the original Little Burro on its catalog cover the next spring.

By then, the Thorsens — primarily the father and daughters Rebecca and Mollie — had arranged for an Ohio company to manufacture their product.

Orders began to come from hardware stores, including Rankins True Value in Warrenton.

> Video at bottom of story

Mr. Thorsen continued to focus primarily on his custom homebuilding business in Alexandria while his daughters worked to expand the Little Burro’s market, eventually reaching distribution agreements with Target, Ace Hardware Stores, Wisconsin-based Menards home improvement centers and other retailers.

They rented a warehouse in Winchester as the distribution center.

Then, tragedy struck. The family’s older daughter Rebecca died of brain disease at age 29 in October 2016.

For a while, nothing else mattered to Rebecca’s parents and four siblings.

But, as the calendar turned to 2017, the devoutly-Christian family realized Rebecca would want them to carry on and to support charitable organizations that combat human trafficking, a cause she had embraced.

“We said, ‘Let’s do this for Becca’,” her father recalled. “She would want us to continue.”

The Thorsens returned to an idea. “We came back to the Burro Buddy,” a smaller version of the original product, said Mollie, 28.

“We kept getting feedback that it needs to be a little cheaper and (the Little Burro) takes up too much room” in stores, Mr. Thorsen explained.

They returned to the Las Vegas show this spring with the smaller, less expensive wheelbarrow tray, which retails for $39.95, about $20 less than the original product.

It again won a new product award.

Mollie continues to work on expanding distribution, working with companies such as Sam’s Club, Walmart and Home Depot. The nation’s largest retailers already sell the Thorsen’s products online, and the entrepreneurs hope to get them into bricks-and-mortar stores soon.

They expect to ship about 25,000 of the trays this year.

True to Rebecca’s wishes, a portion of every Burro sale goes to A21, an organization that battles human trafficking. Her story has prominent space on the company website.

Orders for the Little Burro “have started coming in,” Mollie said. “It’s kind of tumbled into one opportunity after another.”

Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Va./5th) nominated them for the showcase of U.S.-made products at the White House in July. That led to the July 20 appearance on Fox & Friends.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Mr. Thorsen admitted of going on national TV. “But, it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed the journey. It’s been so much fun working with Mollie.”

Jokingly referring to himself as “a volunteer,” he called Mollie the company’s lone employee.

“I thought I’d be in a museum,” said Mollie, a Highland School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in art history at Randolph Macon College. “This is so much better.”

And, as they work to grow the brand, Mr. Thorsen suggested more products might come down the pipeline.

“I’ve got an idea to redesign the five-gallon bucket,” he said. “Think about how many of those there are out there.”

Contact Editor Lou Emerson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

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raichad0 · September 5, 2019 at 11:23 pm
The nation’s largest retailers already sell the Thorsen’s products online, and the entrepreneurs hope to get them into bricks-and-mortar stores soon.
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